Month: February 2013

The Mariners could be the surprise team of the year: but I doubt it.

The M’s have appeared on two national blogs and suggested to be the American League surprise team of the year, as the Orioles and A’s were last year.

Dave Fleming, writing for Bill James Online, uses data to make his point and determines that among the teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year the M’s have the best shot to surprise the field.  Fleming suggests that because of their relative youth, strong farm system, and their second half finish, the Mariners could be in the playoffs. Today, ESPN writer Eric Karabell wrote with even greater certainty the M’s would be this year’s surprise team. Karabell focuses on the teams increased power production from Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse combined with the natural progression of the M’s young players, the undervalued addition of Hisashi Iwakuma and Erasmo Ramirez to the rotation, and the multitude of power arms in the Mariners rotation.

As a life long Mariners fan, I would love to believe the M’s are going to be this year’s surprise team and speed past the A’s, Rangers, and Angels into the playoffs.  Unfortunately, I think it’s all a lot of hokum.  It’s always a lot of fun to speculate and hope.  If these things break right the M’s could win 100 games and get to the World Series.  But it’s all based on hope.  Eric Karabell writes a column on fantasy baseball for ESPN.  His prediction is based on the rapid maturation of the M’s the young Mariner hitters, such as Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders.  This is distinctly possible, and indeed a requirement if the M’s are going to make substantial improvement over last year’s performance. However his real offensive focus is power.  That also seemed to be Jack Zdurencik’s focus during the off-season.  Get dingers.  Karabell loses his credibility with me when he says OBP doesn’t matter.   He cites the A’s loss of 20 points on the OBP on the way to their AL West division championship. Let’s be clear, the M’s OBP in 2012 was .296.  They can’t lose anything  and better  improve if this team has any hope of offensive progress.   The suggestion  that the rotation is vastly improved by the presence of Iwakuma and Ramirez is silly.  Between the two of them they have exactly 26 big league starts.  Ramirez has only 59 major league innings. We still know little about these guys based on their small body of major league work.  It’s pretty difficult to do anything more than hope they can fill in the rotation rather than overpower, baffle or otherwise dance on the defeated souls of the American League.  Karabell’s other hope is the M’s will quickly promote elements of the Gang of Four (plus one or more) to the major leagues.  Of course, none of those guys made it to AAA last year except Andrew Carraway (injured) and Danny Hultzen (who sucked.) We’re much more likely to be seeing Blake Beavan or (god help us) Hector Noesi. Karabell is right about the bullpen being a strength, though it is young and lacks a lot of experience.  Karabell’s exercise is great for fantasy baseball fans, but is not based in reality.

The Fleming article is interesting but is so general as to be pointless. He establishes statistical ratings based mostly on organizational and historical qualities rather than taking a look at the merits of the team.  Though this system has predicted past surprises, I have a hard time believing this is it.

I am pretty resistant to making wild predictions about the M’s success.  I have ridden this horse before and been thrown, stomped, and humiliated.  I remember 2010.  I bought the Maple Street Press guide and devoured it.  I believed in Jack Zdurencik and watched him bring in Chone Figgins, re-sign Junior, and publicly behead Don Wakamatsu.  101 losses later, I learned my lesson.  Of course 2010  was round two after Bill Bavasi’s Last Stand of 2008 the M’s former GM traded Adam Jones and a great deal of the Mariners farm system to the Baltimore Orioles for 89 innings of Eric Bedard.  That team also imploded for 101 losses after being highly touted for big improvement.

I’ve made my own predictions about the M’s this year.  I don’t claim to have any special insight, but the M’s have some specific limitations:

1.  The M’s have improved their power potential, but this team struck out way too much and walked way too little last year.  They must continue to mature as hitters, including being more selective at the plate.

2.  The M’s need Felix to continue to live up to his big contract.  However the rest of the rotation will have to pretend Safeco Field didn’t shrink in size.  Iwakuma will need to pitch like he did the second half of the summer.  Saunders will need to pitch with a Jason Vargas mask on.  Ramirez has to live up to the hype.  Blake Beaven will have to show improvement.

3.  The M’s have to stay healthy, especially in the outfield where they are quite thin.

4.  Somehow Eric Wedge has to manage at-bats for guys like Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez, Mike Morse and potentially Jason Bay in a way that doesn’t absolutely blow up the Mariners’ defense.

This team has too many challenges for me to agree they are somehow special.  At best I think it’s a .500 team, and probably less.  This is a year for incremental improvement.  I am reminded, however, I saw the A’s play early in the year and they were ghastly, so I suppose anything is possible.

It’s fun to project, to predict and to hope as a fan.  However when the media projects, whether it’s Karabell or Fleming, or ZIPS or even Pythagorean projections I get damned irritated.  These are folks with an audience that have an agenda to get you to buy into their expertise.  Their projections are no more valid than mine.  Either they’re taking their limited knowledge or understanding of a team, or their own limited algorithms to put into peoples’ heads.  My projections these days are based on a simple truth.  If you want to see how a team will finish, watch the fucking games and figure it out.

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Hope is a four letter word

Rearview Mirror copy

I drove with friends Dave and Tim to Seattle Saturday.  The topic of much of conversation in the hour ride was inevitably the Mariners.  We’ve been baseball buddies for more than three decades, taken in games together, watched World Series together.  We don’t all love the same teams: Tim is a Yankees/Cubs fan, Dave loves his Giants, and I follow the hometown M’s, though the others have a mild attachment to them as well.  We followed the off-season news with interest, and as the Hot Stove League melts into Spring Training, not surprisingly, we’ve shared our divergent views. It’s not that our opinions of the off-season moves are dissimilar.  We agree the additional hitting in the heart of the order will help, and the real challenge will be assembling an effective pitching rotation from the pieces they’ve assembled.

However, when the topic of when the Mariners may contend came up, our perspectives really separated.  Tim was of a mind that the Mariners may never contend.  They’ve made so many mistakes in the past, he lacked confidence the prospects in the pipeline were correctly evaluated, and that by a combination of poor assessment, injury and bad luck, the Mariners would simply never get the expected bump from their great farm system. Tim simply doesn’t believe the M’s current leadership, from Howard Lincoln, to Chuck Armstrong, to Jack Zdurencik are good enough, courageous enough, or committed enough to field a true contender in Safeco Field.   Dave, a season ticket holder with the Rainiers, and the most cynical of the lot of us, suggested there was talent in the system and that the M’s could contend, but lacked faith the Mariners would spend the money needed to fill their organizational holes with productive free agents.  When I raised the possibility of a new T.V. deal that would provide them a fresh infusion of cash, Dave guffawed and stated flat out the current management would just pocket the money.  I, of course, am the most hopeful of the lot.  I’m hopeful the M’s will make incremental improvement this year, that their rotation will be closer to adding members from the Gang of Four, if not this year then next year.  I am hoping Mike Zunino will assume the catching mantle when he’s ready, and that the Nick Franklin and Stefan Romero will turn into useful parts.  Though I don’t believe the M’s will contend this year, I hope they’ll get a taste of the race in 2014, and perhaps in 2015 become one of the AL West’s Big Boys.

What’s remarkable about our discussion is that it neatly mirrors many of the same conversations I see in Mariners’ forums, or hear in casual conversations with casual M’s fans.  Some fans are strictly in a win now or else mode.  They see the Mariners as consistent losers, never even getting to the World Series in their glory days.  How can they be expected to spend the big dollars to go to Safeco and support the team when it has finished in last place seven of the last nine years?  If they like baseball, chances are they’re faux Yankees or Red Sox fans.  These fans are so disaffected that nothing the M’s brass could do, short of a World Series appearance, can bring them back in the fold.

The second group of fans is in the give me a consistent winner class.  These fans are also profoundly unhappy.  They may have started by hating Bill Bavasi and giving general manager Jack Zdurencik a chance, but it’s taken too long to rebuild, the M’s weren’t willing to spend on big name free agents like Prince Fielder or Josh Hamilton, and frankly contention for them seems a long way off.  Besides, what budding superstars has Zdurencik developed?  How can he be trusted? Where is our Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper.  Where is our Mike Trout?  He’s Chuck and Howie’s willing marionette. This group won’t be happy until the M’s join the Big Boys club and contend annually for the AL west title or a wild card slot.  And win it sometimes too. Getting to the Big Dance would be also be nice. Many of these folks likely won’t attend games, but may watch occasionally on TV, at least as long as the team isn’t bad.  After August 1st they’re looking at Seahawks training camp.

The third group of fans is in the group that is patiently waiting.  They see Zdurencik’s plan and generally approve.  This is the group that wants to rebuild the M’s with good young players, and is willing to take the time to work  through their struggles.  They want to see what the M’s have, and are hopeful. They’re proud of the acknowledgement the M’s now have a solid farm system.  They’re hopeful the kids will produce, and when it becomes clear what the Mariners have the front office will make smart free agent acquisitions to fill the holes. In the meantime, they’re willing to accept incremental improvement, but the day of contention must come soon. I count myself in this group.

The last group is the loyal to the home town team group.  I also see myself in this camp, but to a lesser degree.  For these folks, it’s the M’s.  They love baseball, and the M’s are the team that plays in Seattle.  They may view the team’s progress with a critical eye, but they’re still loyal, either out of respect for the glory years, or because they’re the M’s. Why waste your time on the Cardinals or Tigers, my guys just play down the street. Maybe just as important, if they are like me, or they’re my age, they remember that terrible day in 1970 when the truck carrying the Seattle Pilots’ gear back to Sick Stadium took a right turn on I-90 and headed east to Milwaukee. Can’t take the risk the M’s become the Fargo Mounties.

Actually, there is one final group.  They wear green Sounders jerseys, or a blue Seahawks hoodie, maybe a kelly green Sonics jersey.  They’re excited about the new arena and the idea the Kings might come to Seattle.  If you ask them about the Mariners and baseball, they might respond, “They still play baseball in Seattle?  How’s Griffey doing?”  They might have been M’s fans once, but now they’re on some other bandwagon.  They may have been fixtures at Safeco in 2001-2002 when the place was packed with 35-40K folks and would call their homies to tell them where they were, but they’d be gone by the fourth inning. Now they post to Facebook from Qwest Field and can’t quite remember who the ‘Hawks are playing. They are lost to the Mariners fanbase.

Yes, I understand these portraits are broad and stereotyped, and there are those who probably fit more than one of these categories.  Heck, by August 1st you can probably fit me in with the number two group.  What is amazing is that with some exceptions, these folks that care enough about the M’s to post or hold an opinion aren’t stupid or ignorant.  They read the box scores.  Some are well versed in SABRmetrics, or at least know something about the Mariners and the players.  Most have loved the M’s, many still do.  But when asked about the team there’s a lot of head-shaking, a lot of shoulder shrugging or eye rolling.  There isn’t a lot of nodding.  What a large fraction of the fanbase is lacking is hope.  They need to see a clear path to winning at least a part of the Big Enchilada.  Because the M’s are still looking to see what the farm is producing and the team isn’t making great strides forward to join the Rangers, the Angels and now the improved A’s.  Fans look in their rearview mirror, see the Astros and  hope they aren’t gaining on us.

Loading the truck for Peoria

On Tuesday Mariners pitchers and catchers will report to Peoria for spring training with all the headaches, heartaches and expectations that entails.  The Hot Stove League is about to close and it’s time to assess what ended up being a pretty busy winter for Jackie Z and the boys in the front office. Though the M’s missed out on the big names in the free agent class like Josh Hamilton and Zach Greinke, they did make some deals to fill some important holes. The team didn’t stand pat and made some good short-term moves in anticipation of further additions from the farm system.   In this post I hope to raise some important questions about the M’s heading into spring and the regular season.

1. The Kids are Alright? Never miss the opportunity to use the title of a Who song in my writing. Last year Geoff Baker and others correctly criticized Mariners brass for leaving the first year players to figure out the game for themselves.  Without adding some veteran thunder to their lineup in 2012 kids like Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak were forced to bat in roles they weren’t ready to assume.  Boos, catcalls and further shrinking of the Mariners fanbase ensued.  This year Jackie Z took a different approach and brought in Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse to provide a proven veteran presence in the middle of the lineup.  It allows one more year to see what Montero, Ackley, Smoak, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders can do.  While Morales and Morse may be one year players, at least it allows the M’s to take a look at their youngsters in more favorable circumstances and provide a more accurate evaluation of what they have. However, make no doubt about it, the young guys on this team today must show progress this year for this team to continue on its upward arc.

2.  Long live the King!  Who knows, maybe before I’m finished typing this the ink will be dry on a contract that will reportedly pay Felix Hernandez $135 million over five years.  I’d sure like a piece of that.  Just a small piece of that mind you, because we are talking about the king.  Despite some of the naysayers, I believe it’s money well spent.  Felix is still young and well taken care of, has no history of health problems and should continue being one of the top pitchers in major league baseball. Again, this appeals to the Mariner fanbase which bears a frightening resemblance to the Greenland icepack, keeping a real Mariners hero with the team in contrast to those of yesterday like Griffey, Randy and A-Rod who, in the end, left. The big question, however, isn’t about the King, who is here, but more about his knights of the round table, i.e. his rotation-mates.  Hisashi Iwakuma signed on for two years after his major league debut last summer. It’s still not quite clear what the M’s have in Iwakuma.  Is he the the guy who seemed to excel in 18 starts in the second half of the season?  Will he be better after figuring out the American League a bit, or will the league be better against him?  The M’s also signed Joe Saunders who figures to be a bit like Jason Vargas, but not as good.  If he stays healthy, Saunders does add some experience and should provide some of the innings the Mariners lost by dealing Vargas.  He’s pitched well at Safeco, but with the new cozier stadium it remains to be seen if his stuff will still play well in Seattle.  The remaining two spots are still wide open to a huge cast of competitors.

Yesterday the M’s added veteran Jon Garland to their long list of spring invitees.  He joins Jeremy Bonderman as two of the walking wounded coming off injuries and surgeries hoping to resurrect careers.  The two most obvious candidates for the two remaining rotation spots are Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan.  They join the Gang of Four young guns, Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Brandon Maurer, plus maybe Andrew Carraway as outside shots to make the team.  The competition from spring training should show a lot.  Hopefully it will at least give a clue about how close the young pitchers are to the big club.  I want to know what we have.  It’s also important to see where Beavan and Ramirez are.  Lots of folks have trashed Beavan, a former first round draft pick for what he is not.  He doesn’t throw hard, doesn’t strike out a lot of guys.  He also doesn’t walk anybody, can throw a lot of innings and his numbers improved markedly in the second half of last year. He’s just 24.  I’d like to see what another year does for him, just like I want to see how Kyle Seager and Jesus Montero develop.  There’s a lot higher expectations for Erasmo Ramirez.  Certainly Ramirez pitched well as a starter and reliever before he was injured.  But he has only 59 major league innings and only eight major league starts, so I’m a little more cautious about the load that should be placed on him.

For me the question marks in the rotation-basically everyone after Felix-will determine how good or how bad this team is.

3.  Be Careful of the Statuary!  The M’s have had a history of good outfield defense. Griffey, Cameron, Guti, and others could run down a ball.   Well, except in left field where things could get a bit dicey.  This year the players they’ve added to the outfield mix scare me a bit.  This year the M’s have Guti, Saunders and a mix of guys that are simply not good outfielders.  Mike Morse, love his bat, but he’s really a DH.  All of the defensive metrics show him to be a sub-par fielder.  Raul Ibanez was a bit overmatched in left when he left the Mariners in 2008.  In the case of both players, I don’t doubt their commitment or physical conditioning, they’re just not suited to play the outfield at Safeco Field.  Though the ballpark has lost some of its vast grazing areas, there’s still plenty of room to cover.  I’m also concerned about some of the outfield depth.  Jason Bay is reporting to spring training as a reclamation project.  Casper Wells will complete for a major league job.  Marcus Thames will be in camp.  If  Franklin Gutierrez is again injured, the centerfield situation will get scary in a hurry.  Wells and Thames have not proven themselves to be long term solutions.  If Bay somehow makes the team instead of Wells, the outfield bench will have all the range of the standing pillars at Stonehenge. There are no up and coming outfielders in the high minor leagues.  The M’s cannot afford any serious outfield injuries to Gutierrez or Saundesrs. It’s one of the reasons I was disappointed the M’s didn’t sign Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher or Michael Bourne.

How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm? Jack Zdurencik was hired to rebuild the Mariners farm system as well as the major league team.  This year the M’s farm system was ranked 2nd by Baseball America.  In that respect Zdurencik has been a success.  Unfortunately, there seems to be waves of talent in the minors.  We’ve seen the first wave.  Seager, Saunders, Ackley and the guys Z got in trades and other acquistions: Smoak, Montero, Carp, et. al. They’re still struggling to make good.  The next wave is coming.  Mike Zunino will likely make it to the M’s some time this summer.  The young pitchers are on their way, but their arrival time is uncertain.  Nick Franklin got his first touch of AAA last summer and it left marks. The third wave is still down in the low minors, slowly making its way north. Pressure is on the M’s to win and win now, and the temptation is always to bring the kids up and force them to make huge adjustments to the majors before they’re ready.  If Zunino is rushed to the bigs by the trading deadline, will he be ready to catch for the Mariners?  We’ll see. Will manager Eric Wedge see something so good in the pitching prospects he’ll slot one into the rotation?  My hope is the kids get a chance to develop and learn the game at the level they should be, rather than rushing them up to do things they’re not prepared for. On the other hand, Alvin Davis and Mark Langston, both rookie award winners ins 1984, were promoted directly from double-A Chattanooga Lookouts. It’s often hard to know what is right.

So what do I think?  I think the Hot Stove League never kicked into high gear for the M’s until after the first of the year.  Since that time, Zdurencik and crew have made some sensible moves to improve the team.  The moves to pick up Morales, Morse and Ibanez add some veteran leadership and real heft to the batting lineup.  The additions of Andino and Ibanez provide the M’s with some real late game depth off the bench as well as providing some defensive depth.  With the Vargas trade and Millwood’s retirement, there are some real holes in the rotation.  With none of the kids seemingly ready to take the next big step to the majors, I believe this is the M’s biggest weakness.  Finally, the M’s big moves-the additions of Morse, Morales and Ibanez are one year deals.  They are short term.  The kids must improve if the team is to take the next big step into contention.

I give Jack Z a B- for his off-season moves.  I predict the M’s will win 75-80 games.  If the pitching staff comes together they could win more, maybe as many as 85.

 

We’re saved, sort of: Miguel Olivo signs with Reds

miguel-olivo-mariners

I like Miguel Olivo.  He was always a guy who gave 100% and always seemed to really enjoy being a major league catcher.  He ran hard, could get the attention of his pitchers, and on the occasions when bat met ball, the ball traveled a long way.  If a player could become an All-Star for his passion and enthusiasm for the game, Miguel Olivo would be a perennial candidate for the mid-summer classic. I was glad to see he’ll get a chance to play for the Reds this summer.  Cincinnati signed him to a minor league deal where he’ll compete for a job with Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco.

Unfortunately Olivo was just not a very good catcher, at least not in Seattle. I know he came here in 2011 with a goal of showing the city his 2004 season as a young player in which he played indifferently and hit a measly .200 illustrated the struggles of a young player.  Certainly Olivo played better for the Marlins, Royals and Rockies, and the M’s, after the twin failures of Rob Johnson and Adam Moore, were looking for a veteran who could come in and at least stabilize what had become a catching revolving door.  So the M’s took their flyer, and, like so many things they’ve tried the past few years, it didn’t quite work out.

Olivo was a terrible hitter.  Oh, he led the 2011 team, one offensively offensive in  historical proportions, in home runs with 19.  But he was terrible.  His slash line was .224/.253/.388.  Yes you read that OBP correctly, the victim of drawing 20 walks in 507 plate appearances.  He also struck out 140 times.  Not a lot compared to Mark Reynolds, but you can do the math that’s a 1:7 BB/K ratio.  His OPS of 641 was actually less than his stinky 2004 OPS of .648. Last year in which he was to glue the young catching tandem of Jesus Montero and John Jaso together was worse.  Beginning the year on the DL, Olivo posted a .222/.239/.381 slash.  In 323 plate appearances, Olivo walked an amazing 7 times as opposed to 85 strikeouts. Not a good guy to be giving lots of at bats.

As a catcher, Olivo was also maddeningly not good.  One of the hopes was that Olivo would improve on Johnson’s and Moore’s combined total of 20 passed balls.  Yet Zdurencik brought Montero to Seattle knowing he consistently was near the top of the league in passed balls allowed.  One watched games, almost always close games, in which the M’s were scratching to score their one or two or three runs, and Felix would throw a sinker right between Olivo’s legs and the hard-earned lead and the game would be lost.  Olivo allowed borderline wild pitches that should have been passed balls, and he seemed to be poor at framing pitches to get those extra strikes when we needed them.

So the Mariners are bringing in Kelly Shoppach to team with Montero at catcher this year.  A not great hitter with power who has below average catching skills. A hitter who will strike out a lot and walk very little.  And will keep the seat warm for catcher-of-the-future Mike Zunino.

So Miguel, I wish you well sir.  Though your performance was usually not memorable, neither was your team.  You always found a way to keep your chin up in adversity, and when things were right I loved your megwatt smile.  I’ll bet Shoppach’s is not as nearly so bright.